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Juneteenth Federal Holiday Culmination Of Utah Activist’s 30 Year Unity Journey

SALT LAKE CITY — Saturday is the first Juneteenth in America that will be celebrated as a federal holiday. Juneteenth commemorates the freeing of the last slaves in the United States on June 19, 1865.  

The person largely responsible for the celebrations in Utah helped raise the Juneteenth flag at the Salt Lake City and County building Friday morning. 

Betty Sawyer has been carrying the banner for Juneteenth in the Beehive State for more than 30 years. She’s overjoyed that it’s now a federal holiday, but she encouraged everyone to examine their own attitudes towards equity, inclusion and justice. 

“Juneteenth is a reminder of what we can do when we work together,” said Sawyer, executive director of the Project Success Coalition and Utah Juneteenth Freedom & Heritage Festival. 

Community leaders acknowledged the people who influenced their journeys in life as they took turns raising the Juneteenth flag in Salt Lake City.

Rep. Sandra Hollins, (D-Salt Lake City) sponsored the bill that created the Juneteenth state holiday five years ago. 

 

“As we look back and celebrate our independence, let us not forget to look forward,” Hollins said. “So today, as we raise this flag, let us carry our ancestor’s hope, dreams and visions.” 

Sawyer has led the Juneteenth celebration for more than three decades. 

“Our theme for Juneteenth this year is “Black Joy.” When I saw (Juneteenth became a federal holiday), that was kind of a culmination. I said, ‘I don’t care what happens the rest of the weekend, I’m good right now with that legislation.’” 

When Sawyer first arrived in Utah in 1975, she had a hard time finding other Black people. Since then, she has been working to bring people together. 

“That’s why I keep doing it: to build community, to make places better, because the work I do doesn’t compare to what our ancestors have already done,” she said. “So, this is a little part that I can play in promoting freedom, justice and equity.” 

She urged everyone this Juneteenth to continue to work within themselves to become part of a united community. 

“Examine yourself,” she said. “What are your thoughts? What are your ideas? What are you doing? Then you are able to reach out and bring others into this family, and we do call it a family. The work that we do is a part of that human family.” 

She invited everyone to be part of that family and join the Juneteenth celebrations on Saturday.

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